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Milwaukee Road's S-Curve Trestle (Tacoma)

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 1/07/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10998

Starting in the late 1880s and continuing for decades, the delta where the Puyallup River meets Commencement Bay was dredged and filled to serve the needs of shipping and industry. In 1908 the Milwaukee Road, one of the nation's most innovative railroad companies but a late arrival to Puget Sound, built a 1,500-foot-long timber railroad trestle across the marshy delta land. This was to provide linkage to the tracks of the Tacoma Eastern Railroad, which the Milwaukee Road had purchased to feed freight to its new transcontinental mainline, and access to the former Tacoma Eastern passenger depot and the freight house close to downtown. Plagued by settling soil and rampant rot, the trestle needed constant maintenance and repair and in 1937 was replaced with a span that became known as the S-Curve Trestle (sometimes called the Tacoma Trestle). This too needed frequent repair and was almost entirely rebuilt in 1962. By 1980 the Milwaukee Road was bankrupt and had ended all train service west of Montana. In 2000, Sound Transit's Sounder commuter-train service began between Tacoma and Seattle, and in 2003 its trains started using the S-Curve Trestle, sharing the single track with Tacoma Rail. In 2012 the trestle was determined to be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, but it was neither nominated nor listed. It was demolished in 2017 and slated to be replaced by a new, two-track trestle later that year. 

The Site

Before it was dredged and filled for use by industry and shipping, the delta where the Puyallup River meets Commencement Bay was regularly inundated by floods and covered with silt brought down the river and in on the tides. Members of the Puyallup Tribe had for many centuries lived in several villages around the bay and at scattered sites that reached as far as 15 miles up the river. But the delta itself was not suitable for daily living, as evidenced by the Puyallups' descriptive name for parts of it -- "ground flooded or dry according to the tides" ("Cultural Resources Report"). The nearest archaeological evidence of a permanent Native village, dating from about 2,000 years ago, comes from a site approximately one mile east of the location of the Milwaukee Road's S-Curve Trestle.

The British Hudson's Bay Company opened Fort Nisqually in 1833 but interfered little with the Puyallups, content to involve them in the firm's extensive trading network. The arrival of growing numbers of permanent, non-Indian settlers after 1845 led to efforts to separate the Puyallups from most of their land. These culminated in the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854, which relegated the tribe to a 1,280-acre reservation. When the treaty wars broke out the following year, many Puyallups joined the fight against the government, and more than 500 tribal members were rounded up and confined to Squaxin Island in Puget Sound.

The tribe's fortunes would turn again after peace was restored, and presidential orders in 1857 and 1873 expanded the reservation to more than 18,000 acres. Most of this land would later be sold off to non-Natives in transactions that were in many cases legally and morally dubious. After years of struggle, in 1989 the tribe settled its land claims against the federal government, the State of Washington, the City and Port of Tacoma, and a number of private businesses for a total of $162 million.

Waiting for a Train

The early non-Native communities in the Puget Sound region used the waterways for transportation, as did the Indians. An extensive coastal steamship trade developed, but overland transportation links with the rest of the nation, or for that matter among local communities, were lacking. For this tracks and trains were needed; railroads were the necessary accompaniment of the industrial development of the West.

The first transcontinental route, a collaboration between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, was completed in May 1869 and linked Northern California and the East Coast. Hopes soared in the Northwest at the news that the Northern Pacific would provide a transcontinental link to Puget Sound. In 1873 Tacoma was anointed the railroad's future Puget Sound terminus, a decision that devastated Seattle's overconfident boosters. For Tacomans, it would be a short-lived victory, and even that was long delayed -- the Northern Pacific took a full 10 years, until 1883, to knit together a transcontinental line, and getting to Tacoma still required a train-ferry crossing of the Columbia River at Kalama. By then it was becoming clear that Seattle would be the commercial center of Western Washington, and by 1887 the Northern Pacific had transferred its terminus north to the city on Elliott Bay. Another transcontinental line, the Great Northern, finished laying tracks from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Everett in 1893 and ran a line from there south to Seattle, and on to Tacoma over tracks leased from the Northern Pacific.

Although headquartered elsewhere, both the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern built extensive shipping and storage facilities in Tacoma. Work had been going on since 1887 to make the tidelands of Commencement Bay usable to industry, and the railroads joined in, dredging waterways and filling marshy wetlands in the area the Northern Pacific had named "New Tacoma." Over the years a substantial industrial and port area was created that included wharves, warehouses, and other facilities necessary for handling goods and material that arrived by train and left by ship, or vice-versa. Industrial development radically transformed the natural wetlands of the Puyallup River delta.

Trains and Trestles

Early twentieth-century locomotives often weighed more than 200 tons and frequently hauled dozens of heavily loaded freight cars. The thousands of bridges and trestles that were built to span gaps in the terrain had to be capable of bearing the great weight and dynamic forces of the trains that crossed them. Before the widespread use of steel and concrete, the ready availability of large-dimension timbers made wood the most commonly used material, particularly for trestles.

Trestles come in two varieties -- frame and pile. In frame trestles, the individual bents (the vertical structures that support the roadbed) sit on a prepared pad, which itself rests on a footing made of piles or masonry. The main advantage of a frame trestle is that it can be built to nearly any height. Pile trestles are more suited to low crossings and to span soft or marshy terrain. Their main supports are driven deep into the ground, but the roadbed is rarely more than 35 feet above ground level.

The S-Curve Trestle in Tacoma was built as a pile trestle, the choice dictated by the soft ground it had to cross. Pile trestles can be built using a variable number of timbers driven into the ground at different angles -- the center pile or piles straight down, and those on either side leaning inward, resulting in a triangular-shaped bent with a wide base. The individual piles of each bent are interconnected with lateral bracing, and bents are often connected to each other in a like manner.

When all piles in a bent have been driven as deep as practicable, their tops are cut level and capped with a large, transverse timber beam. Several heavy stringers (also called "chords") are then laid longitudinally atop the caps, usually spanning at least two bents, and staggered. These support wood cross-ties to which the steel rails on which the trains run are attached. Trestles have bents that are close together, insuring that the settling or failure of one, or possibly more, does not render the entire structure unstable.

The Milwaukee Road's Slow March West

The Milwaukee Road was started in 1847 in Wisconsin as the Milwaukee and Waukesha Railroad Company. Its operations slowly expanded westward, but for more than 50 years the tracks extended no farther than North Dakota. Finally, in 1905, the railroad, backed by Rockefeller interests, decided to build out its system to reach Puget Sound, and it would become the last transcontinental line to be completed in America. Formally called the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul, the railroad wanted to capture part of the trade in logs and timber products, and the choice of Tacoma as its western terminus was influenced in large part by the city's proximity to major logging operations. Other considerations were Commencement Bay's excellent harbor and the fact that the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific already had the Seattle waterfront pretty well tied up.

The Milwaukee Road soon headed west, buying or leasing tracks from local railroad companies and laying down new track of its own. The goal was to create a 2,200-mile route (measured from Chicago) to Tacoma and Seattle, with the lines to the two Puget Sound cities splitting off at Black River Junction. Trains would have to cross five mountain ranges -- the Saddles, Belts, Rockies, Bitter Roots, and Cascades. Fifty-one tunnels were needed and a far larger number of bridges and trestles.

A year before the Milwaukee Road was due to arrive, Tacoma's business community was busy drumming up local enthusiasm. In April 1908 the city's Chamber of Commerce and Board of Trade took out a full-page advertisement in Sunset Magazine. Quoting a railroad company attorney, it promised:

"The plans of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul provide for greater development in Tacoma than the people have any idea of. It is here that the business of the road will be done. The headquarters of the company's ocean steamship business will be in Tacoma and this city will have the road's largest western terminals ... " ("Tacoma Traffic Center ... ").

Reaching Tacoma

In a display of brilliant engineering and efficient construction, all the gaps in the line from Chicago to Puget Sound were filled in only three years. On May 19, 1909, the last spike of the nation's last transcontinental railroad was driven in a low-key ceremony held just west of Garrison, Montana. The railroad initially operated service between Tacoma and Malden, and the first passenger train to cross the trestle departed Tacoma on June 14, 1909. The first freight service also started in June 1909, and through freight service between Chicago and Tacoma began on July 4, 1909. In May 1911, the Milwaukee Road started carrying passengers the entire distance from Chicago to Tacoma and Seattle on its new, all-steel Olympian and Columbian trains. The railroad used the passenger depot built by the Tacoma Eastern Railroad at 26th Avenue and A Street.

Before the mainline to Tacoma reached the Puyallup River after splitting off at Black River Junction, it split again at Tacoma Junction. One set of tracks led northwest to the Milwaukee Waterway on Commencement Bay, where the company's impressive shipping facilities had been built. The other crossed the Puyallup River and continued almost due west to the company's huge freighthouse on the filled tidelands and the Tacoma Eastern passenger depot about 2,000 feet farther west. The tracks crossed a low, swampy area that began near the intersection of E 25th and East K streets. Much of this had already been dredged, filled, and developed by 1908, but the ground remained unstable and poorly compacted and a trestle was required to carry trains across it. Compared to other such structures along the railroad's 2,200-mile route, this one would be neither particularly high nor particularly long, but its location on unstable, wet, and poorly compacted soil made construction difficult and adversely affected its stability and durability. A contemporary report by the Milwaukee Road noted:

"The land between K and G Streets [the area to be spanned by the trestle] was very swampy and considerable settlement and subsidence has occurred on the fill at this place. The property was largely covered with buildings at the time of purchase, which were moved or razed at considerable expense. It was necessary to regrade the road and street crossings and rebuild sidewalks, where they were encountered. The street in front of the freighthouse and team tracks was regraded to accommodate those facilities” ("Historic Inventory Report").

The Original Milwaukee Road Trestle

There is little information available on the exact details of the Milwaukee Road's 1908 trestle, but it has been described as "a series of low timber pile and frame bridges and elevated grade tracks" (Sullivan). It ran from near East K Street to the railroad's freighthouse being built at the same time on E 25th Street between East D and East G streets. The trestle was a difficult build; construction records from 1908 noted that at one location workers driving piles "attained a penetration of 126 feet by driving three 45-foot piles, one on top of another, and ... at that depth the pile was still going down at a good rate" (Sullivan).

After completion, the trestle was a maintenance nightmare. The weight and vibration of trains crossing the span forced the support piles deeper into the ground, causing the tracks to sag. To make matters worse, the constant presence of ground moisture encouraged rot. Near-continuous repair and replacement was necessary to keep the trestle operational, and by the mid 1930s it was becoming clear to the railroad that it would be best to simply start all over again.

The Original S-Curve Trestle (1937)

By 1937 the worst effects of the Great Depression had waned, the railroads enjoyed increased freight and passenger traffic, and as war approached in Europe the Tacoma waterfront became an important shipping point for the U.S. military and Fort Lewis, located just a few miles to the south. The Milwaukee Road decided it was time to replace the Tacoma Trestle with one having greater height and sturdier support. The new open-deck timber trestle would be approximately 1,530 feet long, situated between E 25th and E 26th streets, and extend from approximately East K Street to the Milwaukee Road's freighthouse at East G Street. A short distance beyond that the rails went south and branched off into lines to Morton, Hoquiam, Raymond, and Longview

Large piles were used, some measuring up to 10 inches square and 85 feet in length. Individual bents were spaced approximately 16 feet apart along most of the trestle's length, but there was a 54-foot uninterrupted span made of riveted steel I-beams over the Northern Pacific tracks between East J and K streets (known as the "brewery crossing") and a similar but longer 82-foot steel span where the trestle passed over a crossing near East G Street at the other end. There were also three locations where heavy timbers were used to span gaps of less than 30 feet.

The piles used to build the bents were creosoted Douglas fir, and in most cases were driven to a depth of 50 to 55 feet. There were 97 bents total, of nine different heights to accommodate the unevenness of the terrain. A six-pile configuration was used for most bents, with the two center piles driven straight into the ground and the four lateral piles, two on either side, driven at an angle so they leaned it at the top. The width of the bents at their bases ranged from 16 to 21 feet. Two bents used only five piles each, dispensing with one of the center ones. The individual bents differed in other ways; except for the two steel bridge sections, railroad ties were laid atop either six or eight longitudinal timber beams (called "stringers" or "chords") that varied in size according to location, but were never smaller than 10 inches by 17 1/4 inches. Some bents had four diagonal cross braces and two horizontal ones, others only two diagonals and a single horizontal.

There was one significant deviation from the path of the original trestle. About 200 feet west of its starting point near East K Street, the new structure turned slightly to the south and maintained this deviation for approximately 500 feet before straightening out. Measured from E 25th Street, which parallels the track, the curve moved the rails about 30 feet south of a straight-line path. It is this feature that led to the structure being called the S-Curve Trestle, although from the air it is a very relaxed "S" indeed. The precise reason for this deviation from a straight path is not apparent today.

The new trestle was an improvement, but it did not solve the underlying problems. The structure continued to settle and continued to decay, and major pile-replacement projects were necessary in 1947, 1958, and 1960. A 1961 derailment damaged the roadbed between bents 11 and 21. That same year, the Milwaukee Road ended its transcontinental passenger service to concentrate on freight hauling. In 1962, 80 of the 97 bents of the S-Curve Trestle were replaced, and additional work in 1976 replaced many of the stringers and railroad ties.

The S-Curve trestle was designed in 1937 to handle the heavier locomotives then in use. Modern locomotives both weigh less and create smaller dynamic forces and less vibration than older models. As the newer engines came into widespread use, the settling of the trestle's piles diminished, and after the major renovations of 1962 the span survived with more modest upkeep, although timber rot remained a serious and ongoing problem.

The Milwaukee Runs Out of Road

The Milwaukee Road may not have been the largest railroad company in the nation, but it was one of the most innovative. The Great Northern had electrified its line through the Cascade Tunnel as early as 1909, but in late 1916 the Milwaukee Road began much more extensive electrification, starting in Montana and Idaho. Work to electrify the line from Othello, Washington, to Tacoma began in early 1917 and was completed in March 1920. At Tacoma, the railroad electrified the line across the trestle to its passenger station for the passenger trains, and the line to its rail yard and locomotive shop on the tideflats.

Electrification entailed considerable up-front expense but saved money in the long run by using plentiful and cheap hydropower generated from rivers along the way and distributed through railroad-built substations. It also protected passengers from the not-insignificant risk of tunnel asphyxiation from the smoke and exhaust of steam and diesel engines. Eventually, a total of 656 miles, more than a quarter of the Milwaukee Road's route west, would be electrified -- 440 miles between Harlowton, Montana, and Avery, Idaho (which came online in early 1917) and 216 miles between Othello in Eastern Washington and Tacoma (which came online in 1920). Combined, it was the longest stretch of electrified train service in the world. But not until 1927 did company's overhead wires finally reach Seattle.

Among the other improvements the Milwaukee Road introduced or was early to adopt were air-conditioned passenger cars, refrigerated freight cars for perishables, high-speed passenger trains, and the use of containerized shipping. The railroad had been financially troubled during much of its existence, but did well during the post-World War II years and through the 1950s. With the growth of air travel, the passenger service of most railroads were operating at a loss, and in 1961 the Milwaukee Road stopped carrying passengers on its Tacoma/Seattle-to-Chicago. The company would spend much of the next two decades trying to shed the railroad business through merger or sale. As part of this effort, needed maintenance was deferred to make the line's balance sheets more attractive.

By 1970 the trend among railroads was toward greater consolidation, and that year the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific merged into Burlington Northern, bringing economies of scale and other competitive advantages. However, as a condition for approval of the merger, the Milwaukee Road gained access to Portland, and for a time it benefitted from the increased freight traffic. Unfortunately, the years of deferred maintenance soon caught up with it. The railbed and tracks on which the trains ran began to fail, necessitating slower speeds and causing frequent delays. Freight schedules became more advisory than actual, and shippers fled. Derailments became alarmingly frequent; during a particularly bad spell, sections of the main line through Montana averaged one derailment a day. On some tracks, particularly in the mountains, trains could run no faster than 10 m.p.h. Broken equipment often was parked rather than repaired. Finally, on December 19, 1977, the Milwaukee Road, short on equipment, shorter on money, and saddled with thousands of miles of deteriorating track and thousands of tons of aged or broken equipment, filed for reorganization with the federal bankruptcy court in Chicago.

The bankruptcy proceedings were long and contentious. Unions, shippers, and communities along the railroad's route fought its request to close its western operations. But on January 31, 1980, the Interstate Commerce Commission voted to permit the Milwaukee Road to walk away from all of its lines between Miles City, Montana, and Seattle-Tacoma. Service ceased within a month, and the railroad's assets west of Montana were sold off piecemeal or simply abandoned. Sea-Land Services Inc., a huge shipping enterprise, ended up with much of the railroad's Commencement Bay property and facilities.

When the company finally emerged from bankruptcy, it was a Midwest-only line, and even this was gone by 1985, taken over by the Soo Line. The storied Milwaukee Road of old was no more and would never be again, but the S-Curve Trestle it had built in Tacoma nearly 50 years earlier still stood. The City of Tacoma eventually took ownership of it, and in 1998 Tacoma Rail system began to use the trestle as part of its Mountain Division line.

Hello to Sound Transit

The long and complicated history of efforts to create a regional mass-transit system lies outside the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that after years of controversy, debate, and false starts, in September 1993 Snohomish, Pierce, and King counties established a Regional Transit Authority (RTA). In October 1994, the authority adopted a Regional Transit Plan, only to see it shot down by voters the following March. There followed more than a decade of planning and study, and in May 1996 the authority tried again, proposing "Sound Move," a 10-year plan to link Everett, Seattle, Tacoma, and points in between by commuter rail. In August 1996 the RTA adopted the name "Sound Transit" for the entire system and "Sounder" for the planned regional commuter-rail service. The plan finally won voter approval in the November 1996 election.

The Weyerhaeuser Company took over much of the bankrupt Milwaukee Road's track near Commencement Bay, including the S-Curve Trestle. In the late 1990s, the tracks were sold to Tacoma Public Works, which in turn entered into an agreement with Tacoma Rail for the latter's use and maintenance of the line, and it would subsequently share the tracks and trestle with Sound Transit's Sounder commuter trains. On September 18, 2000, the first regularly scheduled commuter train between Tacoma and Seattle departed a temporary platform that was located west of the Tacoma Amtrak station on Portland Avenue. A second train departed a half-hour later, and the two reversed course for the evening commute back to Tacoma. Total ridership that first day was about 1,100.

As automobile traffic for the morning and evening commutes worsened, the popularity of the Sounder commuter train grew. In 2002 a third train was added to the schedule and in September 2003 the Tacoma Dome Station was opened at Freighthouse Square, where the Milwaukee Road's old warehouse had been preserved. By 2012, with Lakewood added as an additional stop, the Sounder South line to Pierce County had grown to 10 round trips a day (including five from the Lakewood station) that ran every 20 minutes and carried an average of 10,500 weekday riders.

Out with the Old, In with the New

The sleek Sounder commuter trains operated almost entirely on tracks that had been around for quite a bit longer than Sound Transit, including the single set atop the S-Curve Trestle. As the popularity of rail commuting grew and the number of trains and runs increased, the trestle required constant maintenance and become a bottleneck for rail traffic. In 2008 voters approved a "Sound Transit 2" ballot measure, which included funding for a new trestle, estimated to cost $62 million (in 2014 dollars). Original plans called for construction to take place in 2023, but a $10-million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation moved the estimated completion date to 2017.

In an assessment issued in December 2012, the state Department of Archaeology and Historical Preservation determined that the S-Curve Trestle was eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, reversing at least two earlier conclusions. Although it was extensively rebuilt since 1937, the trestle retained almost exactly the same appearance, and by 2012 even the major renovation work of 1962 was 50 years old. The finding of historical significance was based on the trestle's "association to the broad patterns of development and growth of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific and its relationship to assisting with the movement of goods to and from Tacoma." It was also determined to be "a resource that embodies the distinguishing characteristics of its type; a RR trestle ... and is of unusual design as compared to other like resources around the state" (Letter, Houser to Paul).   

Despite this finding, the trestle was neither nominated nor listed. Preserving the old trestle was economically and practically infeasible and in 2014 the design phase of the replacement project was underway. The historic S-Curve Trestle was demolished in 2017 and its replacement, a double-track rail bridge, was to be completed by the end of the year.



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Note: This essay was corrected and the sources supplemented on September 20, 2017.

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